A Few Words on Homebrewing

A few weeks back, I received a review copy of Beginning Homebrew, a DVD that walks people through extract homebrewing. It is designed for people with absolutely no experience in brewing, and does a fine job of walking you through the steps, offering a couple variations on standard practices. It also comes with a free instructional booklet that captures the myriad details involved in assembling ingredients, following procedures, and maintaining sanitation. It sets you back twenty bucks, but functions like an experienced friend in the kitchen to walk you through things. Not a bad deal for those who feel overwhelmed by the prospect of brewing.

It got me thinking about homebrewing. No matter which system you decide to adopt, brewing even a single batch of beer at home requires an sizable investment of time and money. Nearly every homebrew store in America has a kit to get you started, and the cheapest run fifty bucks. Add kettles and ingredients and a brewing book and you're almost certainly going to spend at least a hundred dollars on your first batch of beer--and you could spend a lot more. Many people arrive at this moment and wonder--should I take the plunge? You will be unsurprised to learn I have thoughts.

Why Should You Brew?
Before taking the plunge, do a little self-examination. Brewing is like cooking: you don't need to do it to get a good bottle of beer (or plate of food). You brew because you like the process, not the product. It isn't cheap, it's labor-intensive, and it's time-consuming. Hell, it's even a little dangerous.* All of this can be said of cooking, too, and yet millions spend hours in the kitchen making worse food than they could find if they walked down the street the the local bistro.

Are you the kind of person who spends time considering beer recipes? Do you try to figure out which hops offer flavors you enjoy? Do you wonder what a beer with X ingredient might taste like? If thinking about brewing beer stimulates your creativity, brewing beer is probably for you. If, on the other hand, you love the sensual experience of beer but have no interest in recreating those stimuli yourself, you may not be a brewer. If the idea of several hours of work to produce a potentially inferior beer fills you with dread, brewing is not for you. A lot of people who like beer invest their hundred bucks and make a single batch of beer, realizing that drinking beer is a lot more fun than making it.

How Should You Brew?**
Here's how beer is made, in the briefest of nutshells: brewers begin by making a malt tea, bringing it to a boil, and adding spices (usually hops). To this they add yeast and beer results. There are essentially two ways to make that malt tea; they differ in the same way brewing coffee and making instant coffee do. The drip-coffee method involves steeping whole malted grains in warm water and drawing off the liquid (known as "all-grain" homebrewing). This takes longer and you can mess up your proportions. The more foolproof way is to bring water to to boil and add dehydrated malt extract (a method known predictably as "extract brewing"). Nearly every homebrew shop in the country starts you out with five-gallon systems for extract brewing.

Here's my recommendation: try a mini-batch of all-grain brewing. If you are going to be a homebrewer, eventually you'll get to all-grain brewing. (Bakers may start out with Betty Crocker cake-in-a-box, but they don't end there.) If you're not cut out to be a homebrewer, it's better to see what the actual process is like and then cut your losses. The additional bonus is that with a mini-batch, you can avoid spending gobs of money.

If you have a 12-quart stock pot at home, you can jury-rig a system that will produce a two-gallon batch for less than $100, including ingredients--and you'll have very little extraneous crap left in your basement afterward. The technique I recommend is "brew in a bag," which can be very basic indeed. (I'm not going to go into it here, but I recommend using a cooler with a spigot so you can vorlauf and sparge--but only if you already own a cooler with a spigot.) In this system, you need to purchase just a cheap two-gallon fermenter (I saw a plastic one online for $7), a fermentation lock and stopper, mesh bag, plastic hose, sanitizing solution, priming sugar, bottle caps and capper. Oh, and a homebrewing book--which is critical. With these tools you can produce a crude but serviceable beer that will instruct you far more comprehensibly about what beer brewing is actually like. If it floats your boat, you can expand pretty quickly; if not, very little harm done.

*Early homebrew experience: I had batch three in the bottles in my apartment bedroom. A beer made with the only fruit I could find in the early spring in Madison, WI: mangoes. On the first really warm day of the year, while I was fortunately out of the house, the already overcarbonated beers got even more lively, and about half of them exploded, coating my room in a gluey mixture of beer and glass shards.

**By far the best way to get into homebrewing is to find a friend who already brews. Join her on brewday and watch the process. If you think it looks fun, borrow her equipment or have her walk you through a batch yourself. Not only is this a zero-cost way to get into brewing, but you have a trusted resource to guide you through the process. Failing that, my two-gallon scheme is a cheap fall-back.